Citgo Will Go, Says 7-Eleven

By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 28, 2006

The devil might wear Prada, but will his fellow citizens fill up their tanks with Citgo?

One retail chain won't find out. Faced with a barrage of calls from customers and bloggers calling for a boycott of Citgo gasoline stations, 7-Eleven Inc. said yesterday that the Citgo signs are going to start coming down from its convenience stores.

The boycott calls were the result of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's fiery speech at the United Nations last week in which he called President Bush "the devil." 7-Eleven said that the end of its 20-year supply agreement with Citgo Petroleum Corp., owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, was not the result of that speech but rather that it had decided in the spring to launch its own gasoline brand and switch to three new U.S. suppliers.

But the chain moved up the announcement of those plans in response to the outcry over the Chavez speech. "We sympathize with many Americans' concern over derogatory comments about our country and its leadership recently made by Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez," 7-Eleven public relations director Margaret Chabris said in a statement that waded into the political fray. In an interview, she added: "Customers started calling last week and saying that they didn't like what Chavez said. And they wanted to know what we were going to do."

Removing the Citgo signs from 7-Eleven stores and franchises will take until 2008, and Chabris tried to discourage any boycott. She noted that Houston-based Citgo employs 4,000 people and supplies 14,000 retail stations in the United States. "Americans with no substantive connection to Venezuela would be economically harmed by boycotts," she said.

Citgo had announced in July that it would stop supplying some of its branded stations because it no longer refined enough of its own products to meet the stations' needs without buying on spot markets. That, it said, put the company at a "competitive disadvantage." Yesterday it said in a statement that the 7-Eleven contract "did not fit within Citgo's strategy to balance sales with refinery production after the sale of its interest in a Houston-area refinery."

The Chavez speech also sparked criticism of Citgo in Boston, where City Council member Jerry P. McDermott last week called for the removal of the Citgo sign visible over the left field wall of Fenway Park. The neon sign, which went up in 1965, has been called Boston's equivalent of Big Ben. Popular outcry in 1983 stopped a company plan to dismantle the sign.

But McDermott said that the Chavez speech changed his view. When he was a kid on the way to Fenway, McDermott said, "you'd be sitting in the bus and you would see the sign and you knew you were close." But, he said, the sign "doesn't have the reverence that it once did." McDermott added: "It's a corporation that is funding activities against this country, and we should take heed. I don't see why this symbol of foreign aggression should be emblazoned against the sky of Boston."

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